Doing Nothing This Summer
It is summer on Cape Cod and there are so many things to do. As you have been reading the rest of the paper today you may have read about concerts, theater productions, art shows and festivals. You may be struggling through an internal debate about the joy of the beach versus the fear of the shark. If you are a parent, your children have recently been released from school and are now begging to find something to do and you will find it, if only to retain some sanity. You will research the opportunities for nature hikes and mini golf and pirate cruises. You will do it because in our culture everyone has to have something to do.
The 17th century French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal once wrote, “The sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.” Now it may be that Pascal was never able to get his ball through the windmill on the seventh hole and the ensuing frustration led him to a need for quiet contemplation. I think that Pascal points to one of our cultural weaknesses, the need for constant action and stimulation, made worse by the fact that, even if I am quietly in my room, I can whip out a smartphone or tablet for a quick game of Angry Birds.
We put value in productivity, getting things done. I keep a daily and weekly to-do list and it never empties, but there is satisfaction in crossing something off. We are taught to take care of business even when we are on vacation. We are taught that the more you do, the better you are. In vacation terms, the more things you do, the better the vacation is.
We have lost the ancient idea that there is great value in doing nothing. I don’t mean doing nothing for the rest of your life which I would define as laziness or sloth. I mean doing nothing as a purposeful pause from activity in order to simply be. Some might call it Sabbath. Some might call it retreat. Some might call it mindfulness. Some might recall the words of Psalm 46, “Be still and know that I am God.” I call it prayer and find that I encounter the divine most deeply in stillness and silence.
Cape Cod is a brilliant place for doing nothing. You can do nothing at any number of beaches. You can do nothing at sunset on the Quisset Knob. You can do nothing in the cedar swamp by Marconi Beach. You can do nothing at the top of the Pilgrim Monument (though you had to do something to get there.) You can do nothing overlooking ponds, dunes and piping plovers. You can do nothing on quiet trails through the forest. There are so many opportunities for doing nothing.
So go ahead and do nothing, even for a short time. For at least ten minutes, turn off your electronic devices and put down that book (reading counts as doing). Sit on a bench or a comfortable chair or on warm sand. Then do nothing. Breathe. Listen. Watch. Let the thoughts of what you could be doing or should be doing pass by; they can wait. Breathe. Listen. Watch. Be still. For a few moments, embrace the joy of doing nothing. Every day. Do nothing. It is good. It is a gift.
Do nothing. Then do something. Pascal wasn’t advocating that we should spend our whole lives quietly in our rooms. He was suggesting that we need to learn to be comfortable in stillness and silence. Before we can truly and honestly engage with another person, we need to be comfortable with ourselves. Before we can be fully present doing something, we need to be content doing nothing.
So do nothing this summer and then embrace all the wonderful things that there are to be done on Cape Cod. Go to that concert. Read that book. Take that swim. Knock one through the windmill in honor of Pascal. Do nothing and then do something joyful.
But don’t stop there. Go home and do nothing as well. Doing nothing can change the way you look at the world. Doing nothing has inspired the works of poets, playwrights and novelists. It has strengthened the work of social activists and environmentalists. It has been part of the rhythm of life of the saints and mystics of many religious traditions. Do nothing and then do something meaningful.
I am going to do nothing this summer and I hope you will too. There is great value in doing nothing.